Tuesday 18 June 2019

Taking social responsibility seriously can boost business

In a high-touch business like Harvey Norman, the sales teams have a huge impact on the customer's experience. So the need for employee engagement is high. Photo: Ian Waldie/Bloomberg News.
In a high-touch business like Harvey Norman, the sales teams have a huge impact on the customer's experience. So the need for employee engagement is high. Photo: Ian Waldie/Bloomberg News.

Alan O'Neill

With the accelerated pace of change in recent years, trends such as disruption, digitalisation, innovation and so on, have crept into our daily corporate language. There are countless stories and examples of how each one affects business results.

In the pursuit of profit, it's easy for organisations to forget about the impact their business has on society, employees, human rights and the wider environment. It is very encouraging now to see so many companies grabbing hold of this and prioritising their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

Many of my clients include CSR in their business planning. You'll regularly see links and references on corporate websites to nominated charities, such as Londis supporting Pieta House and Glanbia supporting Barretstown. I do appreciate that it may be seen and misinterpreted by some as a cynical brand-building tactic. There is no doubt that it can only be good for your brand. But I have experienced some genuine and heart-warming examples that are well-intended.

Harvey Norman

Founded in Australia in 1961, Harvey Norman now has 300 stores worldwide. The Irish story started 15 years ago and from there it grew to become a leading retailer of furniture, bedding, computers and electrical goods. It now has 15 stores across the island of Ireland.

Despite the downturn, Harvey Norman stuck it out. At great cost, it showed a commitment to its own employees and took a long-term view of the Irish market. It further invested in Ireland by recently opening a new flagship store in Tallaght.

Harvey Norman is a retailer where almost every customer interacts with an employee on every visit. That's not the same for every retailer. After all, you could shop in Tesco and pay at the automated checkout without speaking to a soul.

In a high-touch business like Harvey Norman, the sales teams have a huge impact on the customer's experience. So the need for employee engagement is high.

When the Irish company returned to profit, it decided to also reinvest in its people. A major Leadership Development Programme was one initiative. And, because employee engagement is so critical to excellent customer service, it surveyed the full team countrywide to get anonymous views on life in Harvey Norman.

For a multi-site retailer that is totally owned by the company (not a franchise operation) it delegates much more autonomy to each store manager than I've seen in other retailers. Despite deals being negotiated centrally, managers locally make a lot of decisions about product mix, presentation and more. That also includes which local communities should be supported and how.


Harvey Norman recognises the link between employee engagement and customer satisfaction. Therefore it takes employee engagement surveys seriously. In the most recent one, the company got high scores in many areas which made it very proud. But in the interest of continuous improvement, there was one area that stood out as an opportunity for improvement.

While there were lots of community initiatives, staff felt that the company could be more expressive in showing they care through CSR.

CSR Tips

1 The first thing for any organisation to do is to include CSR on the agenda. It may be that you already have some initiatives and are not calling it CSR. There are excellent resources in csrhub.ie and bitc.ie that encourage you to do an initial audit of your current initiatives and your future aspirations.

2 There are some fundamental things that you could put into action straight away, such as respecting the environment, partnering with a charity, supporting job-bridge programmes, etc. Harvey Norman already ensures that the wood in the furniture that it buys comes from sustainable forests. It uses low-energy lights in stores. It also ensures that work conditions and labour laws are respected in their total supply chain.

3 Get your people involved and encourage them to come up with relevant initiatives that they can own and drive. When the initiatives come from the bottom up, the level of engagement increases. Harvey Norman listened to its people in the engagement survey and facilitated a company-wide CSR project, empowering stores to develop their own plans.

4 Be authentic and use your strengths and skills in your CSR projects. If you are a professional services company that releases your people for one day a year to paint a premises for a charity, well that of course has to be admired.

But what about using the skills at your disposal in another way?

Harvey Norman is in the bedding and furniture business.

Its initiatives focused on providing bedding to the Peter McVerry Trust, raising €180,000 in four weeks.

"Not only that, but we now intend to enable the Trust to piggy-back on our buying power to get better deals in the future," said chief executive Blaine Callard.

"We are also exploring the idea of providing training in computers to the disadvantaged."


When you take CSR seriously, there are a number of potential wins for you. Involving your people organisation-wide is hugely positive, motivating and makes people feel good.

Engagement, pride and commitment increases. Customers and suppliers will also respect you for it and that's good for business.

Alan O'Neill is a change consultant and non-executive director. For 30-plus years he has been supporting global and iconic brands through change. Alan-oneill.com. Business advice questions for Alan can be sent to sundaybusiness@independent.ie

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